For Abbas Kiarostami, no film was ever apolitical. He had once said, “There are politics in all films. Any film that is anchored in a society, any film that deals with humanity is necessarily political.” The Iranian director was 76 when he died earlier this week, and his legacy stands unrivalled. Without him, his country’s cinema would have been less feted and more niche. Ordeals suffered by Iranian filmmakers have been well documented. The restrictions placed on them by State and society cripple as much as they stifle. Faced with such stringency, Kiarostami responded with a subversion that was quiet. He coloured within the lines given, but his transgressions were imperceptibly clever.
Made in 2002, Kiarostami’s Ten exemplifies how the envelope can be pushed without quite revealing its contents. The entire hour-and-a-half hour long film is shot inside a car. Two cameras are fixed on the passenger and driver’s seat respectively. The protagonist of the film, the driver (Mania Akbari), is never named, and for the first 15 minutes, she is never seen. Despite these obvious directorial interventions, the movie is tangibly real, suspended somewhere between documentary and fiction.
Akbari’s son is embittered by the fact that she divorced his father to marry another man.
In November last year, authorities in Iran warned women drivers that their cars would be impounded if they were found without a hijab at the wheel. Roads in Iran and the Middle East have never been easy for women to navigate, but Kiarostami’s driver has chutzpah, a whole lot of it. A large portion of Ten sees her converse with her young son (Amin Maher), who is embittered by the fact that she divorced his father to marry another man. He is obstinate and his admonishments are harsh. The protagonist, however, demonstrates a forbearance that’s enviable. She tells her son a few times over – “I belong to no one, only to myself.” She says she’d like to travel instead of vacuuming.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Kiarostami and his protagonist are both feminists. Their politics, though, never burden Ten’s flow. Their radicalism is always articulated within a context and within the framework of relationships. It is this human pertinence which hardens the blow. There is no theory here. There is only practice. Ten is the precise number of conversations that the driver has in this film. When not driving her child, she gives lifts to several women – her sister, an old lady on her way to a mausoleum, a woman she meets there, a wife whose marriage is breaking and a prostitute.
Akbari befriends a passenger who once removes her hijab to show her shaven head.
The prostitute, for instance, isn’t apologetic about what she does. “You’re the wholesalers. We’re the retailers,” she tells our driver. We never see the prostitute, and this lack of a presence only amplifies the isolation of her trade. But Akbari’s facial expressions tell a story that’s comprehensive enough. Human exchanges like these can impact and influence. Despite her reservations, Akbari’s character starts visiting the mausoleum after dropping the old lady there. She befriends a fellow believer, who once removes her hijab to show Akbari her head which she’d shaved after heartbreak. Even to those outside Iran, this sudden removal of the veil doesn’t seem innocuous. It is quite obviously charged with progressive intent. According to Kiarostami, “In order to be universal, you have to be rooted in your own culture,” and Ten is strangely relatable only because of its specificity.
Mania Akbari, a filmmaker herself, was forced to flee Iran after members of her crew were arrested. Jafar Panahi, who once assisted Kiarostami, also set his last film, Taxi, in a car. Banned from making films for 20 years, Panahi, though, has to hoodwink Iranian authorities to make his cinema. Kiarostami, however, chose to walk that thin line. Much like his protagonist in Ten, he clearly liked stepping on the accelerator, but he also seemed to know well the value of hitting the brakes in time.